Reflections from CCDA Cincinnati Day 1

Skinner Rah

For those unaware of CCDA, the letters stand for Christian Community Development Association, an organization 20 years young.  The organization grew out of the reconciliation work of John Perkins, a long-time faithful, courageous disciple of Jesus whose work for racial justice began in the 1960s and has continued long beyond when “civil rights” didn’t carry quite the sexy feel that it did in the 60’s.  In that sense, then, Perkins is a persistent prophet and practitioner of God’s justice who, because of his persistence, has shaped a generation of people to God’s deep concern for reconciliation.

I’m volunteering at CCDA in a variety of roles while being limited by my work schedule, but each night from 7-9 is a public session of music and teaching open to all.  Last night, I was on video camera #2 in that public session, where Barbara Williams-Skinner and Soon Chong Rah were the main speakers.

Barbara was the first speaker, and I found great wisdom in her sharing.  She spoke of Moses speaking to the people of Israel from Sinai, exhorting them and encouraging them to consider where they came from and to focus on where they were going.  She spoke of the temptation to “remain in Egypt” in their minds while neglecting God’s providence and protection to get them where they were.  She spoke of the temptation in our day to neglect the deeper call to reconciliation, to settle for what little progress has taken place in the area of racial reconciliation.  It’s progress, but “we” (primarily whites and blacks) can’t say we love each other unless we’re spending time with one another.  Her words shaped for me the larger question; “How can brothers and sisters in Christ from different races be creative to be ‘with’ one another to show the world unity rather than fragmentation?  How do we overcome settling for institutional segregation to love one another and be leaders in the challenge of reconciliation?”

The next speaker was Choong Song Rah, a professor at North Park University in Chicago.  Prof Rah offered his perspective on how the church can pursue reconciliation, primarily by emphasizing the issue of power.  He challenged those of us in positions of relative power (usually white, middle to upper-middle class) to seek God’s justice through putting ourselves in the position to give up power.  It was here that Rah was most convicting, especially given his statistics that showed that Christianity has already undergone a huge demographic shift over the last hundred years.  Meanwhile, while this shift has been taking place, we’ve maintained a theology and leadership that remains largely Western and white to this day. We must change our leadership structures and ways of relating to represent this change! One of Rah’s provocative statements was this,

“I’m for the commitment to caring for the environment, for creation care, for being stewards of God’s earth.  But because this has become the ‘in vogue’ thing to care about in the larger evangelical movement (mostly white churches), everyone cares about it.  But what I find interesting about that is that caring for the environment, instead of seeking racial reconciliation, allows people to seek justice without giving up power.  They don’t have to radically humble themselves with others.  So the creation care movement can be pursued in a way that ignores other, more challenging aspects of social justice.”

Now, granted, I’m paraphrasing Rah there because I didn’t record his message, but I think I struck at the heart of it.  And that’s a powerful statement that strikes me as wise.  There’s a deep temptation in humanity, even those of us who serve the God of justice, to take the path of least resistance; the path that requires the least energy for the maximum amount of recognition of our good work.  And it is true that the cause of environmental justice requires less interpersonal giving up of power.  It’s extremely tough to seek true, deep humility, and to give up power once attained.  I want to live with that challenge.  I would add, though, that seeking environmental justice requires a very real and very deep self-emptying and self-sacrifice.  It is a giving up of the idol of my individuality (comfort, and decision-making centered on self) to the greater communal good, which God is much more concerned about.  But that’s just me working out some of the specifics that follow Rah’s proclamation.

Another strong statement by Rah was this; If you, as a white person, want to move into an urban setting and do ministry, and you don’t have any non-white mentors, you’re not a missionary, you’re a colonialist.”

That statement hurts, but it rings true to me. Can we truly be reconcilers without our lives living and breathing reconciliation?  Can we teach reconciliation if we are not modeling it?  In that sense Rah’s comment reflects Skinner’s earlier comment that we need to be with one another in order to love one another.  We cannot deeply love others by remaining at a distance from them, especially if we live next door.  By submitting ourselves to the mentoring of persons of different races and cultures, we are forced out of our own cultural lenses to see the world from their shoes.  And that’s essential.  ESSENTIAL.

Rah placed these strong statement in the wider context of God’s grace for broken people.  It was Rah’s shaping of the wider context that saddened me, however.  Rah’s emphasis was the same most evangelicals emphasize, which is “It’s not about human works, it’s about God’s grace.”  There are other variations on the same theme; “Human striving doesn’t accomplish anything unless God’s power is present,” “We all fall short, so God’s forgiveness is what matters,” etc etc.  I am saddened by this line of thought because the deeper I travel into the Scriptures, the more I find the dignity of human striving.  Not a striving to achieve salvation (which, by the way, isn’t a Biblical concern, but is an evangelical concern), but a striving to be obedient to our Creator (which is salvation, as I explain from my perspective in another place).It seems clear in the Bible that God wants people to be obedient to what they were created for, and when we do so, we find joy and meaning and fulfillment.  God clearly knows we have shortcomings, and reveals himself to be grace-filled and deeply forgiving, but that aspect of His character doesn’t negate the central call to obedience.

And it’s that last sentence that leads me to be saddened and disappointed when people keep making the main issue of Christian faith a works/grace issue.  Clearly, when we are aware of the call to total obedience, we have a strong temptation to “make lists,” as Rah highlighted through his personal story.  And it is true that God doesn’t stand over us, waiting to punch us in the mouth or make us feel like hell when we fall short.  Yet isn’t it also true, Biblically, that when we are aware of our shortcomings, we have a strong temptation to make life all about grace in a way that completely de-emphasizes our strivings for faithfulness?  What I’m saying is this.  Can’t we shape a message for God’s people that holds together God’s great grace with God’s great expectation of obedience?  And when we take this message seriously, won’t that dignify human effort and put it in its proper place as the natural response to the call of our Creator? And when we dignify human effort, we might find some scales fall off our minds to see that salvation, Biblically understood, is centered on being saved from rebellion and saved to humble obedience. That includes life after death, but is centered on God redeeming humans to be faithful today.  It is that message, and not Rah’s, that gives me ultimate hope, that gives me a life worth throwing myself into.

So I’m grateful for Rah’s willingness to speak courageously and boldly, but I’m saddened that he placed his comments in an, ultimately, unhelpful context.  Just some reflections from Day 1.

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